Meet the Musicians
Theme Songs
Rhythm of the Stars
Ya Gotta Laugh
Tito Puente Tribute

Wilson 'Chembo' Corniel

The first time I saw Wilson "Chembo" Corniel was 17 years ago. He was working with Bobby Rodriguez y La Compania at the Monday night performance of Salsa Meets Jazz at the Village Gate in New York City. It was at that time, November, 1982, that I took his first LP endorsement photo. He also worked with a variety of musical artists such as Jose Bello, Tito Allen, Luis Ramirez, Pete El Conde and Tito Nieves.

"Chembo" attributes his ability to expand his horizons from salsa to Latin/jazz to the strong "clave" foundation of traditional salsa. He began playing salsa in1978 with Bobby Rodriguez and continued playing traditional salsa for many years. For the last 5 or 6 years, "Chembo" has branched out into Latin/jazz. It's freer for him to have a traditional foundation of salsa to support him as he crosses over and stretches out into the less restrictive Latin/jazz. This wide perspective allows him to be comfortable wherever he plays.

Lately "Chembo" has been playing with Puente trumpet player Ray Vega. They just recorded an album on Concord.& They also have an album coming out with Chris Washburn. You can see "Chembo" and Ray every Thursday at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

"Chembo" travels to Japan almost every year. The first time he went was in 1993 with Tito Nieves. He returned every year since then with Larry Harlow and the Latin Legends band. They have a two-week Japan/China tour coming up this summer. The accent of this tour will be on percussion. It is being promoted as Larry Harlow's Thunder Drums 99. The band will be supplied with LP® instruments for the whole tour. Five percussionists are invited to play Bata and Rumba with the accompaniment of Larry Harlow and the Latin Legends band.

"Chembo" also tries to go to Cuba every two years for the percussion workshop. Since he has branched out to Latin/Jazz, he is trying to pick up more influence from Roberto Viscaino. The Cubans recognize that the American Puerto Rican culture kept the Cuban tradition despite the blockade. "Chembo" calls Cuba Conga Land. "You go there, it's like a kid in a candy store -- everybody plays conga, everyone's rhythmically inclined."

"Chembo" admits that there now are not so many places to work in New York City. He remembers the Corso on 86th Street . That is where he got his training -- "boot camp." He also remembers other clubs such as Barney Googles, Casa Blanca, La Maganette. In those days, there were parties every day, clubs bursting with excitement. Salsa was being played everywhere every night of the week. Today there aren't the same variety of clubs. Merengue clubs are expanding and becoming powerful because they are very showy, energetic, and dramatic, but most of all it's easier to dance to the music, whereas, salsa is more complicated.

Those who helped shape "Chembo"'s career as a percussionist are Tommy Lopez, Sr. and Little Ray Romero. They were from the same neighborhood. Tommy Lopez, Sr. used to take him to members only clubs on Lenox Avenue. There he felt privileged to see Kako, Patato, Totico, and Little Ray. "Chembo" says that what he admired most about Tommy Lopez, Sr. was not only his great playing, but also the respect that he had for the drum. Once Tommy sat down behind the drum, there was a connection between him and the drum. "Chembo" felt the vibe between Tommy and his drum, which showed in the music and his attitude. "Chembo" says, "I got from him the respect that you've got to have for yourself, for your drum, for the public, for the guy you're working for, and for being a gentleman."

Listen to Chembo discuss his career in this RealAudio interview.

To learn more about Chembo Corniel, CLICK HERE.